When we open our eyes, we look at nature. But in painting, nature springs from the mystery of the palette. Once laid down, one tone suggests a second, and their encounter leads to another and another, with interludes of blankness, battles and stalemates. With oil painting, these truths become even more self-evident. By itself, a color locates a plane in space – closer to the viewer with a warm tone, farther away with a cold one. Painters from the dawn of the twentieth century used color as a way to create on canvas a notion of space and depth without recourse to perspective, without losing the bi-dimensionality of the surface. This was fully demonstrated by the French Fauvists and the German Expressionists who used simultaneous or delayed contrasts of different sets of complementary colors.

Through the years, while still using tone interaction to establish planes in space, I have increasingly devoted color to the expression of tone and feeling. A touch of red, how nice, why not a little more of the same, and then it is too much! All the more reason to go on adding more and more. It is good to exaggerate, to go beyond, to pursue the extreme limit of what is suggested by the pictorial imagination. When red invades all the available space, it stops being a color at last – it creates an emotional climate or even becomes the very meaning of the piece.

Color doesn’t always need to glow at its brightest; grays, blacks and whites can be of greater import. What counts is to know what to display and what to hide. The painter gives clues and the viewer builds an image from the puzzle in front of his eyes. Like nature itself, the painter is evasive and the viewer sets on a quest, eager to decipher the enigma, perhaps eager for more rational logic than the artist ever intends.

Color is there to accelerate cardiac rhythm, to elicit a tear, to set teeth on edge, and to beguile. It is the result of a condensed sensation, as Henri Matisse used to say, therefore it is intuitive and passionate. It is an inborn knowledge that can become refined with time, but which cannot be taught nor learned.

Color carries feeling, sensitivity, but above all is a direct expression of the sensorial affinity one entertains with life: white anger, purple rage, to see red, be green with envy, have the blues. For the artist, it is the spontaneous pleasure of splashing with vivid variegated tones a pure white canvas that stood forgotten in a corner, asking nothing from destiny. Color is like the fireworks that explode on a summer night, hitting the viewer in the plexus.

When a picture has found its “punch”, the painter can say in retrospect (as I do here), I wanted this or I wanted that, and deliver a speech about the role of complementary colors and chromatic scales. But true sensuousness is of a primal nature. Beware of painters (starting with me) who explain the why and how of a picture – it is a posteriori. If the canvas dominant is yellow: “Oh, I meant the sun.” If it ends in a blue key: “Oh, I was really sad that day.” All painters are liars, except when they work. The Chinese say that painting is the art of the brush. I believe that it is the art of Silence.

Very simply, the artist wants “to see life beautiful.” A painter will squash colors on canvases for a lifetime in the quest. To succeed, a miracle is necessary and, occasionally, a miracle does appear. And then, as Jean Cocteau put it: “Since this mystery is beyond us, let’s pretend we organized it.”

– Françoise Gilot

Chiaroscuro Puzzle, 1999

Oil on canvas,
36 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. (92 x 73 cm.)
Collection Fred and Virginia Merrill, Kansas

Gilot is never married to her ideas of subject matter when she begins a painting. Unlike Picasso, she prefers to allow the forms and colors to evolve, to reinvent themselves, and to guide the painting to its final gesture. In this work, from her current series of intuitive, less figurative canvases, the blue shapes were actually added as a last minute thought -- one vaguely suggesting a table, the other a stylized gourd-like water container. The addition of two circular shapes and the orange crescent, suggest fruits in a bowl. This is typical of how figuration arrives on the canvas at almost the final moment after the structure is set in terms of color and composition. Gilot’s wrestling with the problems of darkness and light, abstraction and figuration, determined the title of this work.

Construction, 1945

Oil on canvas,
45 3/4 x 35 in. (116 x 89 cm.)
Collection Dr. Mel Yoakum, Ph.D., California

This work began as small drawings of a ship inside a bottle made in a sketchbook of 1944. In subsequent sketches, the major lines and shapes were developed and abstracted. In the painting the ship and bottle have been turned 90 degrees to the right so that the ship balances on its bow and the bottle on its mouth. Further abstracting the composition, only the curving lines of the container, the trapezoid shapes of the sails and the verticals and diagonals of the rigging remain. Flat, densely pigmented areas of a single hue are juxtaposed to regions with richly overlaid colors.

Woman Asleep (Self-Portrait), 1952

Oil on canvas,
51 x 76 in. (130 x 195 cm.)
Collection Jerry and Carole Vanier, Arizona

The Red Cliff, 1987

Oil on canvas,
25 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. (65 x 81 cm)
Collection Wells Fargo Bank, California

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